What Is A Whole-Brain Child? The 4 S's To Ensure A Secure Attachment

Contributing writers By Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. & Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.
Contributing writers
Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. & Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., are the co-authors of two New York Times bestsellers, The Whole-Brain Child and No-Drama Discipline.
Mother and Father Holding Their Young Son on an Outdoor Walk
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Secure attachment is the outcome most caring parents are striving to help create in their children's lives. A securely attached relationship enables a child to feel at home in the world and to interact with others as an authentic individual who knows who she is. She interacts with new opportunities and challenges from a position of openness, curiosity, and receptiveness rather than rigidity, fear, and reactivity. 

Her whole brain is more integrated—which means she can employ the more sophisticated functions of her brain even when confronted with difficult situations and respond to her world from a position of security, demonstrating more emotional balance, more resilience, more insight, and more empathy. That's what we mean when we talk about a "whole-brain child." 

As a result, the child will be not only happier but also much more socially adept, which means she'll be better able to get along with others, collaboratively solve problems, consider consequences, think about other people's feelings, and on and on. In short, a securely attached child is not only happier and more content but also much easier to be with and to parent.

All four of these S's dovetail or overlap at times because when kids feel safe, seen, and soothed, they will develop a secure attachment to their caregivers: 

1. Safe

An absolute requirement for feeling secure is to feel safe. Kids feel safe when they feel protected physically, emotionally, and relationally. This is the first step toward a secure attachment, since a parent's first job is to keep his or her kids safe. They need to feel and know that they're safe. They have to believe that their parents are going to protect them from physical harm, but that, also, their parents are going to keep them safe emotionally and relationally. This doesn't mean that parents can't ever make a mistake or say or do something that leads to hurt feelings. We're all going to do that, a lot more than we'd like. But when we mess up with our kids—or when they mess up with us—we repair the damage as soon as we can.

This is how they learn that even when mistakes are made and harsh words spoken, we still love each other and want to make things right again. That message, when consistently delivered, leads to a feeling of safety. Remember, the key is repair, repair, repair. There's no such thing as perfect parenting.

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2. Seen

The second of the Four S's focuses on helping kids feel seen. A big part of parenting is about simply showing up for our kids physically: We attend their recitals, spend time with them, play with them, read together, and plenty more. "Quantity time" does matter, yes. Of course it does. But seeing a child is more than just being physically present. It's about attuning to what's going on inside of them and really focusing our attention on their inner feelings, thoughts, memories—whatever is happening in their minds beneath their behaviors. 

Truly seeing a child means we pay attention to their emotions, both positive and negative. Not every second of every day; no one can do that. But on a consistent basis, we celebrate our kids' joys and victories, and we hurt with them when they experience the injuries life will inevitably deliver. We tune in to their internal landscape. That's what it means to show up emotionally and relationally, to be there for our kids and teach them what it means to love and care for someone. This is how our children come to "feel felt" by us, to sense that we feel what is going on inside them beyond just observing their external behavior. When they know that we'll dependably show up—not perfectly, and maybe not every single time—then they'll build those mental models that lead to deep security.

When your child feels seen by you and learns to know his own mind from these mindsight connections, he can come to understand others well, too. Add this experience of feeling seen to feeling safe, and a child will be well on the way to living a life full of security, meaning, and joy

3. Soothed

 

In addition to feeling safe and seen, we want our children to feel soothed during their toughest times. That doesn't mean—at all—that we rescue them from all pain and discomfort. Difficult moments are, of course, where they often learn and grow the most. We must allow our kids, depending on their age and stage of life, to experience those trying times when conflict arises with friends, teachers, and others. 

To put it differently, soothing our children isn't about getting rid of the waves they will inevitably face in life's ocean. It's about teaching them to ride the waves when they come—and being with them when they need us. There should never be any doubt in their minds about whether we will show up during hard times. They should know, at their core, that when they are hurting, and even when they're at their worst, we will be there. We have to let them learn that with life comes pain, but that lesson should be accompanied by the deep awareness that they'll never have to suffer alone.

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4. Security

Feeling safe, seen, and soothed leads to the fourth S, security, which is based on predictability. Again, it's not about perfection. No one can parent without making mistakes. Rather, it's about letting your kids know that they can count on you, time and again, to show up. Their security will come when they believe that you'll do all you can to keep them safe, that you'll work hard to help them feel seen when they come to you, and that when things don't go their way, you'll be there to soothe them. The neurobiological effect of the Four S's is an integrated brain: a nervous system that's resilient and that doesn't stay in prolonged stress. 

As a result, kids can approach life from an assumption that they are safe, that love and relationships will be consistent and present in their lives, and that they can handle life's inevitable difficult moments, leaving them feeling secure and at home in the world.

Adapted from The Power of Showing Up by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, copyright © 2020 by Mind Your Brain Inc., and Tina Payne Bryson Inc. Used by permission of Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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